Original Sin: Calvin's Conundrum

The Original Sin Series

When we last heard from our intrepid doctrine, Augustine had taken Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 2-3 in Romans 5 and taken that to mean that Adam’s sin conferred not only death on the entire human race, but also guilt.  This was a big step, to be sure, and, as I’ve written, it hinges on a particular reading of the second creation narrative in Genesis and on a particular biology of the transmission of moral standing via semen.  Some of my readers find both of these fairly dubious.

A thousand years after Augustine, John Calvin came along and ginned up the Reformation that Martin Luther had begun just a few years earlier.  Calvin in his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin took the doctrine of Original Sin one step further than Augustine, arguing that our inherited sinfulness has erased virtually all remnant of the imago dei in us — God might have said, “Let us make man in our image,” but the subsequent sin of Adam expunged that image:

Therefore original sin is seen to be an
hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature diffused into all parts
of the soul . . . wherefore those who have defined original sin as the
lack of the original righteousness with which we should have been endowed,
no doubt include, by implication, the whole fact of the matter, but they
have not fully expressed the positive energy of this sin. For our nature
is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil
that it cannot be inactive. Those who have called it concupiscence
[a strong, especially sexual desire, lust] have
used a word by no means wide of the mark, if it were added  (and this is
what many do not concede) that whatever is in man from intellect to will,
from the soul to the flesh, is all defiled and crammed with concupiscence;
or, to sum it up briefly, that the whole man is in himself nothing but

Calvin’s acolytes seized upon the idea of “hereditary depravity” and made it the opening salvo of the TULIP doctrine:

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistable Grace
Perseverance of the Saints

The first question I always ask 5-point Calvinists is this: If you
believe in total depravity of the human intellect, how can you be so
damn certain that you’re right about total depravity? The answer
usually seems to be something about the “plain meaning of scripture.”

That quibble aside, Calvinists make clear that total depravity is not the same as absolute depravity.  While the latter allows for no good in humans, the former merely means that every aspect of the human being is besmirched, but that good is still possible within a human. (No, I don’t quite see the difference either.)

But total depravity does mean that the human being is not capable of producing anything good, not capable of doing anything that is pleasing to God.

What this promotes is the sovereignty of God, a doctrine which, it must be noted, Calvinists value more highly than any other.  Acknowledging the sovereignty of God, they argue, necessitates the doctrine of human depravity because if God is totally sovereign, then we are totally lacking in sovereignty.

As I have found with the doctrine of Original Sin in general, it seems to me a solution (God’s sovereignty) in search of a problem (total depravity).  It also seems to me that I can affirm God’s sovereignty without accepting total depravity.

So, what say you?  Are any of you willing to come to the defense of Calvin’s theological foe, Arminius, as some of you were for Pelagius?

(BTW, I officially ban comments to the effect of “Need proof of depravity? Look around!” and “GK Chesterton said that Original Sin is the one doctrine that is empirically provable. Puh-leeze.)

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  • rick bennett

    To prove total depravity, I only need to look at the following:
    1. NFL officiating, especially when the Steelers involved in the Super Bowl.
    2. Terrel Owens picking up a new contract.
    3. The 14 wins the NCAA is trying to take from Saint Bobby Bowden.
    4. The multiple Grammys for Coldplay and John Mayer.
    5. Britney Spears selling out our local 20K venue when innovative music fests in Florida (Langeradoo)are cancelled.
    How else can you explain this?
    How can we explain these things unless there is total depravity, at least in the area of sports. Unless god created everything and walked away. I think I cannot believe in a sovereign sports God in light of this.
    I am a Sports/ Music Deist. Of course, the lack of World Series wins for the Cubbies still give me a small amount of faith in God.
    Sorry- I saw your threat of banning as a challenge.

  • Kenton

    Rick’s comment flies in the face of your dictum against “Need proof of Total Depravity, Look around,” but is so classic, it needs to be made comment of the week.

  • ryan

    I think the question can equally be posed; what part of the human has not been marred? Truly, is your mind, body, emotions, soul, work without sin? As C. Plantinga “Inherent to all of us is the truth that things are not they way there are supposed to be.”
    Its also misleading to write that Calvin that the image of God has been virtually wiped out in humanity. Read Book II of the Institutes for a more accurate understanding.

  • Benjamin

    I would say, faithful to my Calvinist background, that your heart is just reacting to the sin that is infused within it because it recognizes that the affirmation of free will is just a outpouring of that same sin in different people. ha!
    So what does your heart feel when Jesus said that he came to bring not peace, but division. Luke 12
    When Paul tells us that the Father has “predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will.” Ephesian’s 1
    Im curious…

  • Ethan

    “What this promotes is the sovereignty of God, a doctrine which, it must be noted, Calvinists value more highly than any other.”
    I’m not sure what Calvinists you hang with (I doubt you hang with any), but we (the collective we) don’t value sovereignty more highly than all other doctrines. How can you value sovereignty over the uniqueness of Christ? Or over the Trinity? Or over the unconditional love of God? Is this too systematic for you?
    “It also seems to me that I can affirm God’s sovereignty without accepting total depravity.”
    You have still given no clear-cut defense against total depravity. Maybe you are saving that for the “conclusion” blog post, but I am totally in the dark here on what you believe. Then again, this may just be you embracing mystery.

  • ryan

    You are absolutely right. Seems Tony is going after a faulty understanding of Calvinism. I do not know of any Calvinist who values God’s sovereignty over his love and grace. In fact I can not imagine anything more terrible in the universe than God’s sovereignty if I first do not embrace that he is supremely loving and graceful. I only love his sovereignty because I know he character is love.
    Lets do better Tony.

  • Ryan #2

    To an outsider like myself, it does seem that Calvinists value God’s sovereignty over his love. It’s hard for me to imagine that a loving God would predestine someone to Hell, which is the ultimate trajectory of absolute sovereignty. Now I’m expecting the usual rebuttal about God’s ways not being our ways….

  • I have to agree with both Tony and Rick#2, and to some degree with plain old ryan. Calvinism doesn’t explicitly value sovereignty over love and grace, but it implicitly does so.
    If we grossly (but usefully) simplify Calvinism and think of it purely as an answer to the problem of evil, it very quickly becomes clear that its primary goal is to provide a theological model of the world wherein the sovereignty of God plainly “makes sense”, and where the other traditional attributes of God must be abandoned, or at least leached of some of their meaning.

  • Say, for a moment, that you believe in “absolute sovereignty” and “double predestination.”
    Why wouldn’t you just sit around in your PJs all day smoking cigars and watching Captain Kangaroo?
    Does God know I’m going to pick my nose before I do it?
    Wouldn’t we need to thank God for AIDs, cancer, rape, depression, terrorism, murder, infidelity, and other parts of God’s divine plan?
    What would be the point of praying if it doesn’t make a difference God or our future?
    How could this theology view God as loving and moral?
    Isn’t this theology different than the Biblical depictions of God “changing his mind” (e.g. Exodus 32:14) and doing a “new thing” (e.g. Isaiah 43:19)?
    Is it really love if we’re coersively forced to love God (irresistible grace)?
    Do we actually worship God if we’re forced to do it?
    Is God free of emotions or is God gracious, merciful, patient, and loving (Psalm 145:8)?
    Did God cause me to write this reply?

  • I am no longer a Calvinist, though I used to be. I think I was only a Calvinist because the jokes were better. If you don’t get that, you weren’t meant to.
    But, the idea of “total depravity” is incomprehensible apart from discussing the medieval Catholic understanding of the Fall. In their theology, the Fall affected everything except reason and will. Reason and will were not fallen and corrupt, though the rest of humanity was. So, when Calvin and Calvinists talk of “total depravity,” they mean that every part of the human makeup is affected by the Fall. This is why the quote you gave from Calvin specifically says “from intellect to will,” among other things. This is why many Calvinists today differentiate between “total” and the so-called “absolute” depravity. The idea is that if we were absolutely depraved, we would all be serial killers, rapists, alcoholics, who sell Amway. But total depravity only means that every aspect is affected, contra medieval Catholic theology of sin and the Fall.
    I’ll agree with the others, though. What Calvinist said that total depravity is the necessary corollary to absolute sovereignty? I’ve never heard any Calvinist ever say that. Ever. It doesn’t even really make sense.

  • Michael

    Isn’t is a good thing that God does not think like men? If we were all dependent on the “wisdom” of Dr. Calvin, would any of us ever find our way into the “presence of God”? If not arbitrary, than why would this God select me over the one next to me on the train? Thank you God that we have You to look to for our present and future happiness and not the likes of Cavlinists!

  • doug

    Um, according to my understanding of Classical Arminianism (and as documented at wikipedia and http://www.apuritansmind.com/Creeds/ArminianArticles.htm), Arminianismism in agreement with Calvinism with respect to total depravity – “Depravity is total: Arminius states “In this [fallen] state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.”
    So yes, I will come to the defense of Arminius in this case.

  • ryan

    Hey Sara,
    Those are good questions you raise, but the answer is actually pretty simple; because those who love their Father want to do his will and obey his commands. It is amazing that our great God would invite us to partake in the unfolding of his kingdom.
    I think you would be surprised to know that the top church planting churches in America right now are Reformed in theology. Therefore, in orthopraxy, there does not seem to be anything in Reformed theology that stops one from being an active follower of Jesus. And yes, God does know your going to pick your nose and just wants you to wash your hands first!
    @Matthew, I always wanted to be plain old ryan! I think the whole idea of trying to juxtapose any of God’s attributes is a losing theological agenda. His sovereignty is loving, it is loving sovereignty.
    Yet we all digress, as it was pointed out, this post was about total depravity which is held by Arminians as well. So I am open to doing away with total depravity even though Romans 3 is pretty clear on it; tell me one area of humanity that has not been marred by sin, emotions? physically? relationships? mind? And if we are ready to say that some of these areas are not tainted than my comment would be really? So this is as good as it gets? I hope not Tony.

  • Sara

    And now it’s time for a woman’s perspective on “original sin.”
    Eve, the woman, fell for the snake’s deceit. Eve, the woman, was a deceived transgressor, not Adam (1 Timothy 2:14). Eve, the woman, was seduced by the snake and then tricked Adam into eating the forbidden fruit. Eve, the woman, is to blame for the fall into original sin resulting in the total depravity of all humankind. Eve, the woman, forced God to exile all of humankind from the Garden of Eden.
    Eve, the woman, is blamed by many church fathers, including Tertullian:
    “…walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve, — the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium (attaching to her as the cause) of human perdition. “In pains and in anxieties dost thou bear (children), woman; and toward thine husband (is) thy inclination, and he lords it over thee.” And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image in man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die.”
    Eve, the woman, made women in all times and places more sinful, deceit, and susceptible to evil. Women shouldn’t be leaders of a family or ordained as pastors. The wisdom of women is only appropriate for other women – not for men. The birth that women provide for their children isn’t good enough, so they have to be baptized as “born again” children. Women couldn’t possible reflect the Divine, so God is called a “Father.” And on and on and on.
    The messages of “original sin” are clear: (1) Men are bad because of women. (2) Women are even worse because they caused men to be bad.
    Men and women need a new theology, unless Christianity want to be forever based on misogynistic theology written by men.

  • ryan

    Sara I do not know of one modern Evangelical that ascribes to that understanding of original sin. There is no such things a “woman” or “man” perspective of total depravity. Its a human plight not gender related.
    Making comments like yours end up being only distracting and unduly inflammatory. They just hold no reality or weight in the current theology and are just footnotes of long ago refuted ideas.

  • Keith

    All I can add is while you make some good points and I enjoy the conversation one thing you bring up in my mind is that it is beyond question from a primarily biblical basis Jesus died for a reason and if that reason is not that in some way all humans are lost and thus in need of his salvation,as his apostles attested to and most if not all christian groups have historically held then what did he die for?
    If you respond i will read and appreciate.
    Sincerely, New to the conversation

  • Your Name

    Also, I liked Brian’s comments. I do recognize as God’s speacially created creatures (that is those made in his image (to include both his femine and masculine qualities)we are 1)created as free moral agents with the capacity for both good and evil. 2)created as beings naturally worthy of respect deity and honor 3)created as beings meant for intimate relation with God in some way. Still my question stands. I hope this clarifies a little more where I for one am coming from in trying to understand both Christ’s and the apostles’ *(including Paul) teachings in light of life.
    *[ which by the way I would hold to be equally binding on any “christian” faith].
    Again sincerely and respectfully.

  • Keith

    the above post is mine sorry i left off my name on accident and where I say in point 2 that we are worthy of deity I actually meant dignity.

  • Keith

    Lastly, I hope what I wrote above is not seen as a “need proof” question. However, others define it. To this seeker of Truth it seems a question which needs answering if humans are indeed born pure as God originally designed them according to the Genesis account quoted earlier in this thread. And Sarah and Ryan thankyou for your comments as well for while there may be some issues for different people with them I do believe they add positively to the discussion.

  • Hi Keith! You bring up a good question. Why did Jesus die? It seems like such a simple question. But people have been struggling to answer that question since the day Jesus was killed. And there are a lot of different answers. The answers are called theories/models of atonement. They seek to explain how Jesus reconsiled humanity to/with God. My husband and I have come up with a list of the theories. Which one(s) do you find most compelling?
    (1) Substitutionary atonement (Calvin) – Christ’s voluntarily suffers and dies on the cross as our substitute. In other words, Jesus takes the punishment of God for sinners by representing us.
    (2) Satisfaction (Anselm) – Christ’s voluntary sacrifice of his innocent life pays our debt to God so God’s justice can be satisfied. In short, Jesus makes restitution for us.
    (3) Ransom (Origen) – Adam and Eve sold humanity out to the devil, so God had to trick the devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom so we can be free. In the end, the devil is tricked because Jesus got resurrected after we are freed.
    (4) Moral influence (Abelard) – Jesus’ life and death are characterized by his exemplary obedience to God’s love, therefore demonstrating to humanity the love of God. So, Jesus should awaken sinners to God’s reality and inspire us to be obedient to God.
    (5) Governmental (Grotius) – God demonstrates God’s anger towards sin by punishing Christ. Here, God is understood as a judge who demands divine justice for sinners. In the end, Jesus suffers in order that humans can be forgiven and God’s justice can be upheld.
    (6) Liberation (Boff) – Jesus’ life and death demonstrate God’s solidarity with people who are poor and oppressed. So, Jesus lives a life of care and compassion – and his crucifixion demonstrates how perverse and violent human injustice can be. In other words, Jesus lived obediently to God’s care for the poor, which brought him into conflict with an oppressive empire that killed Jesus. In the end, Jesus was unjustly executed through crucifixion by the Roman Empire. Therefore, the oppressive and violent people in the world were exposed as ungodly and immoral. In this theology, Jesus died because of sin, but not for sins. Therefore, in imitation of Jesus, ministry is about empowering the oppressed and helping the poor.
    (7) Decisive Revelation (Riggs) – Jesus is the widow through which we see God. Through Jesus’ life and teachings we learn about God and what God values. Some people experienced God-in-Christ and became faithful to God. But other people were offended and threatened by Jesus and wanted to kill him. In the end, Jesus was murdered by people who hated the values and influence of God. Despite his crucifixion, the presence and ministry of Jesus continues through the lives of Christians. God is still beckoning us into faith and faithfulness. In this theology, the purpose of ministry is to share the good news of God’s love that was decisively revealed through Christ, so more people can develop a relationship with God.
    (8) State Execution (Crossan) – Jesus and his disciples invited people into the Kingdom of God and out of the Kingdom of Rome. The Empire of God was about God’s love, justice, and mutuality. The Empire of Rome was about humanity’s individuality, greed, and brutality. Jesus and his disciples were rebels against Rome by living out the values of God. Romans became angry that Jesus was undermining their way of life. So, the brutal Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, hung Jesus on a cross to humiliate Jesus and terrorize his followers. Despite Jesus’ traumatic and unjust execution by the state, Christ’s presence and God’s Kingdom continues to invite people to live by God’s values – and be assured of God love. In this theology, Christians are empowered by God’s love to live out God’s values of love, justice, and mutuality.

  • Your Name

    Well, presently I believe they all have legitimate merit and collectively, most likely, arrive at the Truth. More specifically however, I find that Boff’s theory (according to the summary here) has the deficiency of not fully addressing Paul’s thoughts in relation to Christ’s crucifixion which relate in some way toward the verification that there was a dying for sins while also having room for a dying because of sins. Now in order of relevance to the human experience I would presently hold 1, 6, & 8 as collectively holding spot # 1 (because I equally believe Christ was meant as an example of humanity as God intends it and a Savior) followed by all the others which all hold some truth for me. I will have to think at it some more. Understand in this response I “first came to Christ” with a modified Calvinistic understanding of the situation.
    Let me also say I am not familiar with all of the theorists mentioned.

  • Benjamin

    i have yet to see anyone use Scripture and scripture alone to refute the doctrine of original sin.
    no case against Romans 5 or romans 9
    no case against Ephesians 1
    no case against the whole book of Hebrews
    you take one verse in scripture and hebrew mysticism to support your claims, which ultimately lack context and therefore fail the basic act of making a good argument.
    Ephesians says the church is on the foundation of the prophets AND the apostles.
    David cried that his soul was birthed from iniquity
    Moses pleaded with an Israel that was falling back into NATURAL way
    The whole book of Judges screams out that when people follow their own hearts things go very very bad
    Hebrews lays Christs death at the feet of the Jewish people who thought that they needed to do something to make Christs death work for them, to tell them that it is by grace through faith that they are saved and the faith that they have was GIVEN to them so that no man may boast in anything but the cross
    Plenty of heretical church figures in the past have come up with better arguments then this and every time it is but 30, 40 or 50 years until they are left with no one to teach because their teaching is filled with man centered philosophy and empty, hollow promises.

  • Keith

    Sara I would like your response to my once again unamed post.

  • Benjamin, an interesting point you raise about refuting OS biblically.
    Personally, I’m still unclear about exactly what different people think “original sin” is, and what its exact effects are.
    I also am not clear on what “total depravity” really means. Where on this scale does total depravity fit?
    Humans, on their own, without direct causal “force” from God are:
    1. only capable of complete moral good/perfection (no amoral actions)
    2. incapable of any bad/imperfection (still capable of amoral actions)
    3. capable of both good and bad, but inclined to good
    4. capable of good and bad, inclined to neither over the other
    5. capable of good and bad, inclined to bad
    6. incapable of any good (but still capable of amoral actions)
    7. only and consistently capable of bad (no amoral actions).
    Thirdly, assuming a “fall” event caused this total depravity, whereabouts on the scale did humans sit BEFORE the fall event.
    Now, the scale presented above may be totally missing the point, at which juncture may I request an appropriate alternative? I’d really like to get my head around all this terminology so that I can be on the same page – I suspect a lot of us may have different definitions, and thus are not able to discuss the issue with clarity.

  • Benjamin

    Ok, so…
    Total Depravity, in the most plain sentence i can make of it, it that We(human beings) have descended from one man(Adam) and that since our first father(Adam) sinned, he has since past on not only the action of habitual sinning, but he gave us what the Lord said in Genesis would happen if he sinned, and that is Death.
    Now, i believe that this whole OS debate comes from the term used here, Death.
    Reformed Theologians would say that this death is two sided. It is physical and metaphysical.
    We die because we sin, but we also sin because within us, is the infection of that sin that Adam gave us. Sin begates sinning and the Sin that causes the sinning also causes Death.
    Tony on the other hand, i would say, (hopefully i get this right, if not then tell me so) believes that the sin which Adam committed only gave us physical Death. and that the Image of God has remained in us so that we may do good.
    I personally see no biblical support for this at all. While i do not think it is an issue of salvation that you adhere to OS, i do think it warps your view of scripture to an view that i don’t think is correct.

  • Ben,
    Thanks for the clarification. It’s good to note that you think that “it is an issue of salvation that you adhere to OS”. It influences the way I read your comments. I now see that your argument is more one of clarification and persuatin as opposed to evangelising.
    My main issue with OS, is the proposition that physical death is the result. I’m of the opinion that physical death has been with all biological life for many billions of years. . . . I would include homonids in this.
    I think of OS more as a relatedness issue. Humans are no longer ‘related’ to God in the way they once were/had the opportunity to be. Our standing before God is not based on trust, mutual love, open communication etc. We still have the functional capability for this, but none of us begin life is a position where this is actually functioning – i.e. these capacities need to be ‘unlocked’ if you will (ie. we are dead in our sins – the capacity for relatedness with God is in the ‘off” position) . Hence the need for being ‘reborn’ into christ or whatever term one wants to give it.

  • Benjamin

    You go against all every bit of Romans and Hebrews with that statement.
    You give no proof or biblical text supporting your claim. I cannot endorse it.
    im sorry to nit-pick but i DONT think this is an issue of salvation. You made it sound like i thought it was, and i very strictly know that this is not an “requirement” for salvation.
    One only needs the faith that the father gives in order that we may be saved, sanctified and eventually glorified through that faith, that is all.
    Now they’re objective evidences that we have that proof or disproof that one has that faith, but this is surely not one of them

  • Benjamin

    and i think i agree with you phil on your last statement, but the writer of Genesis makes very clear that physical death came about as a result of Adams sin. Genesis 2:16-17

  • ben, sorry I accidentally missed the word ‘don’t’ from my comment. my apologies.
    I did intend to write that youn “DONT think this is an issue of salvation”

  • Nonny Moose

    Ezek. 18 – the son shall not be held accountable for the sins of the father, nor the father for the sins of the son.
    Not just an isolated passage, but a whole chapter written to combat the teaching that the father eats sour grapes and the son’s teeth fall out.
    Whatever ever Adam’s sin means for us — it does not mean we are guilty. In Romans — it says death came to man from Adam ‘for all sinned’. The guilt of Adam didn’t come to all men from his sin — no more so than the salvation of Jesus came to all men. Just the possibility for it.
    What we get from Adam’s transgression is the same thing he got….kicked out of the garden, labor and pain in childbirth. Oh, and the most important thing “the knowledge of good and evil”.
    You see, where there is no law, there is no sin. Because of Adam, we all have a conscience that tells us the good and bad (before we sear it) and the sin in us springs up and kills us — WHEN — we sin.
    Jesus was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin. Thus Jesus too had the sinful nature from Adam, but that did not confer guilt upon Him.

  • Robin.

    Total depravity refers to the fact man alone is incapable of reconciling himself with God.
    Adam sinned, we now all suffer. We are no longer born walking with God, we must come to walk with God through Christ. Adam’s “sin” is heridatry in the sense we are born outside Eden, not that we are born with crimes punishable by death. We are outside Eden, which alone is punishable by death, as we not in God’s Kingdom.
    Total depravity means your works are not sufficient to make you righteous before God. Only through Christ can we be seen as righteous.
    Total depravity also means you can not act purely good. As there will allways be a motive of the flesh for some sort of self gratification, some sort of self gain. Only works of pure good come from the Holy Spirit which dwells in us. The Holy Spirit guides our flesh to do such things.

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